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Monday, June 13, 2011

Norfolk Tides turn close one into late rout, beat Durham Bulls: Teleology

Posted by on Mon, Jun 13, 2011 at 6:00 AM

Gary Allenson, Receveur
  • Gary Allenson, Receveur
DBAP/ DURHAM—To make a beeline for the outcome, which is what teleology essentially buddies up to: The Norfolk Tides beat the Durham Bulls last night, 11-5. The game was much closer than that, because the Tides entered the ninth inning clinging to a 6-5 lead, long after they had erased a 3-0 first-inning deficit handed them by Russ Canzler's three-run homer off of Chris Tillman, who wound up getting the win. A five-run third inning, in which Norfolk bombed Brian Baker with back-to-back home runs by Jake Fox (just down from Baltimore) and Josh Bell, was decisive, in retrospect.

But a five-run explosion in the ninth against a wildly ineffective Mike Ekstrom (35 ninth-inning pitches, just 15 strikes), after Tides manager Gary Allenson had an explosion of his own—more on that later—shook down all of the intervening action, which turned out to have been in the service of an outcome decided in the third inning. The Bulls have lost the first two games of this four-game series to 25-38 Norfolk, the worst team in the league. Only because the Gwinnett Braves lost again do the Bulls find themselves still tied for the IL South Division lead.

The definition of teleology can get unpleasantly complex, but it boils down to something like this: Things wind up a certain way because they are, essentially, destined or programmed to do so by natural forces (the Greek word telos means "end" or "purpose"). Once that end arrives, all that has gone before it is illuminated. Christianity, for example, is teleological: a Revelation at the end of the world will explain all that has led up to that end.

So let's work backward and see if we can discover exactly how last night's game worked, teleologically speaking. Or if it worked at all.

Bottom of the ninth inning: Ray Olmedo, who had walked and scored the game's first run ahead of Canzler's home run, back in the first inning, lines out to end the game.

Top of the ninth inning, two outs: Rob Delaney relieves Mike Ekstrom, who has allowed three runs, two doubles, a single and three walks, plus a wild pitch. The bases are loaded with one out. Robinson Chirinos lets Delaney's first pitch go off his glove to the backstop, scoring Kyle Hudson to make it 10-5. Four pitches later, Blake Davis hits a sacrifice fly to make it 11-5.

That will be the final score. Durham infielder Omar Luna is warming up in the bullpen. Luna pitched an inning of blowout relief last Monday. That Luna may be summoned here is rather remarkable, considering that it was 6-5, Tides, when the inning began. Yet that's where we are, suddenly, at the butt end of what is now a position-player-pitching rout.

Top of the ninth inning, one out: Ekstrom, who had spelled Ryan Reid in the top of the eighth inning and gotten the final out to keep the Bulls' deficit at two runs, has walked the leadoff hitter, Josh Bell, who has stolen second base as Rhyne Hughes struck out looking. The next batter, Tyler Henson, hits a long drive to center field, just left of straightaway. Back goes Desmond Jennings. He has no play. He watches the ball just clear the wall for a two-run home run. 8-5, Tides.

But wait. Jennings is indicating that the ball cleared the wall, but not the fence. See, at the DBAP, the wall is backed by a fence with stiles, and that fence has a yellow line painted horizontally across it. The common understanding is that a ball is supposed to clear the yellow line atop the railing in order to be considered a home run. Indeed, according to Tides manager Gary Allenson, he and the umpires met at home plate before the series started and agreed that a ball that lands, improbably, between the wall and the fence, will be a ground-rules double, not a homer.

Yet over the last few seasons, a few balls have found that unlikely seam, and more than one has been ruled a homer. (Poor Wade Davis was victimized twice.)

Nonetheless, one of the umpires eventually goes out there, where Jennings and left-fielder Russ Canzler are standing by the center field wall. (I know what you're thinking: Left fielder Russ Canzler? I'll get back to that, I promise.) He actually disappears between the wall's vertical slats, then reappears moments later with the ball—and orders Henson back to second base. So it's 7-5 Tides, not 8-5.

I suspect that what happens next later made some highlights shows you may have seen on ESPN or elsewhere. Gary Allenson, him not pleased. After he goes and talks it over, unhappily, with the umpire—I think it was Chris Ward—he is unconvinced.

Let's let him tell it: "My point with the umpire, when they changed it to being a ground-rule double, was: How do you know that's the ball [that Henson hit]?"

Allenson's argument is that there could have been a multitude of dead-and-gone home-run balls out there beyond the wall, the ghosts of homers past; but as he told it, "The guy that eventually threw me out said, 'Well, it's a dry ball.'"

Well, that lame and frankly ridiculous explanation drives Allenson up the wall. Literally. He walks from the area near the shortstop hole where he has been debating with Ward all the way out to center field. Walks, mind you, not runs. This takes a few minutes. We have already been through a 52-minute rain delay. Allenson then walks through the space in the blue wall where Jennings indicated that the homer was really a double. Allenson then scales the railing behind the wall, drops to the other side—the grassy berm behind the rail—and begins to scope it for signs of other baseballs.

Meanwhile, as Allenson makes the march out to the wall, Ward ejects him from the game.

Still, Allenson said, "That's why I climbed the wall: maybe I could find a ball out there, too. Maybe there are five balls out there. Maybe I'll find a ball that's a little wet and I'll rub it up and it'll be dry."

To go backward in my recording a bit—because backward is the direction we're going here—Allenson began by allowing that "balls can go through that [narrow gap between wall and railing]; it's a really tough call; if it goes through the opening there, instead of a guy getting hurt, it's a ground-rule double." That's what the umps had decreed before the series began.

Nonetheless, more Allenson: "My first thought was, 'We're playing much better lately, but we've struggled—and with 38 losses, we've lost in different ways. And all of a sudden, we had a one-run lead, it's kinda dwindling. A two-run home run is a bit of breathing room—but it's not a two-run home run. That's why I went out there."

Had Allenson found another ball—and if he'd only explored the shrubs in dead-center field on the berm, he almost surely would have (instead he turned left and wound up behind the radar-gun readout screen, while the crowd howled)—had he found another ball, he'd have had a case. But he didn't. He should have taken one out there with him and planted it, in case the ump had done the very same thing.

Well, the call was correct, in any case: it was pretty obvious that the ball had gone right in that seam and should have been ruled a double. Still, Allenson had to get back over the wall. "It was a lot easier going up than it was coming down," he cracked. But he managed it, and then walked all the way back to the infield, spoke with the first base umpire, Mark Lollo, who must have said something like, Ain't my lookout, pal, try Ward; then tried Ward—who had already thrown Allenson out—and was Warded off. Finally, after a delay that must have tacked on sufficient minutes to stretch our 52 minutes of non-baseball-playing to a full hour, Allenson went to the clubhouse.

(Update, 12:30 p.m.: The Bulls have just posted Allenson's full seven-minute performance! Here:)

From there, on TV, he presumably saw John Hester follow Henson's now-double with one of his own—a drive to left that hit near the top of the Blue Monster and might well have provoked another controversy—and Henson scored easily to make it 8-5, after all. Soon enough, it would be 11-5 and Omar Luna would be warming in the bullpen.

"But I don't know that at the time," Allenson says, in conclusion. Ah, teleology. Otherwise, he adds, "I probably wouldn't have gone up there."

"Sure you would have," hitting coach Brad Komminsk says. We all laugh, and that ends the most entertaining interview we've had all season.

More teleology, via Desmond Jennings, with hindsight after Allenson's human rain-delay: "I was mad that I even said something."

Bottom of the eighth inning: Tides reliever Jose Diaz is listed at 6-foot-4, 330 pounds. On my way home from the ballpark, I walked behind Diaz for a couple of blocks, and I am here to tell you that Diaz is almost certainly the measure of his stats. He has a funny pitching motion in which he opens up his body a little as he comes forward and slings the ball homeward at 95 mph, 96 mph—when he throws his fastball, that is. But he also has a good slider. Robinson Chirinos is at the plate against Diaz. The Bulls haven't faced Diaz before; he was just called up from Double-A Bowie. There's one out, and a run is in—to narrow Norfolk's lead to 6-5—and runners are on first and second; the tying run's in scoring position for Chirinos. A throwing error by Tides second baseman Brendan Harris has caused a fair amount of the trouble for Diaz, who is now trying to pitch out of it. The count is 2-2 and Chirinos has been dealing with the fastballs—95, 95, 94. But he's set up for a slider, and Diaz throws it, and Chirinos swings and misses. Strike three. Come to think of it, it may have been the other way around: a bunch of sliders followed by a fastball. But I don't think so. Anyway, Leslie Anderson pops out to second base. The Bulls don't tie the score.

Top of the eighth inning: Ryan Reid has thrown 56 pitches. He is now officially Charlie Montoyo's swinghorse (that is a cross between a swingman and a workhorse), having started a game, pitched in long relief, come on at any old moment with his leg-kick-out-forward delivery and pitched whenever it's been deemed necessary. But he's tiring here, and has allowed a two-out single to Harris.

Mike Ekstrom comes in with Jake McGee getting loose in the pen. It almost seems like, if Ekstrom runs into trouble here, McGee will come in. It's 6-4, Norfolk. The Bulls are still hanging in this game, and they have at least a modicum of momentum from the bottom of the seventh, when Desmond Jennings singled home a run to cut the margin from 6-3 to 6-4.

Ekstrom gives up a single to Blake Davis, missing with an 0-2 pitch and getting enough of the plate that Davis is able to poke it into left—a harbinger, perhaps, of location problems to come in the ninth inning. But then he gets Jake Fox to pop out and end the inning.

I do something I never do: I complete Ekstrom's line in my scoresheet, sure that McGee will be coming in for the ninth inning. I go: .1 1 0 0 0 0.

There's a reason I don't usually—in fact, practically never—do this before an actual change has been made: superstition. Sure enough, after Ekstrom returns, rather surprisingly, for his disastrous top of the ninth, and then departs, I have to write atop his .1 1 0 0 0 0 this line instead: .2 4 5 4 3 1. McGee never gets into the game. Omar Luna comes closer to pitching than McGee.

Is Mike Ekstrom, who has pitched reasonably well for Tampa Bay here and there in short stints in the majors, turning into this year's Dale Thayer? Fastball, slider, same pitches as Thayer's, same velocity. Same issues with location. Fastball up, fastball up; hit, hit; fastball down, fastball down, misses low, misses low; walks. Thayer generally avoided the walks.

Bottom of the seventh inning: After Desmond Jennings singles in that run to make it 6-4, the Bulls have two on with two outs. Ray Olmedo hits a decently struck fly ball, but it's to dead center field (where later Gary Allenson will tromp purposefully) and he is Ray Olmedo, homerless this year. Matt Angle catches it to keep the Bulls from slicing further into the Tides' lead.

Top of the seventh inning: Ryan Reid gets two outs, then Josh Bell singles. Reid runs the count full against former Bull Rhyne Hughes—one of 14 three-ball counts indulged in by Bulls pitchers on the night—then walks him. It's the fourth of seven walks allowed by the Durham staff. The walk pushes Bell into scoring position, and guess what he does with two outs? He scores when Henson singles to right. It is now 6-3, Norfolk, and this run will turn out to be crucial, because it means that the single runs the Bulls plate in the next two innings only reduce rather than erase a deficit.

Top of the sixth inning: With the count 2-0 on Angle, the rain we've been watching approach on radar hits, and hard. We get a 52-minute rain delay. There's a lot of excitement when the grounds crew can't get the tarp down because the wind keeps blowing it out of their hands. They finally do get it down—with a huge air bubble trapped underneath it, blowing the thing up into the air again. Finally, Director of Media Relations Matt DeMargel appears on the field and stomps all over the long bubble; meanwhile, groundskeeper Scott Strickland drives his tractor over the tarp, in emphatic bubble-busting support.

Meanwhile, I read an article in the New York Review of Books. It includes a citation of this sentence by F. W. Maitland:

It is hard to think away out of our heads a history which has long lain in a remote past but which once lay in the future.

And then, in re the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and its triggering of World War I:

And yet this is retrospective teleology. Because something happens does not mean it had to happen, or that it could be foreseen.

Something tells me to make a note of these sentences.

Shortly before we resume play, I go for a little stroll through the park. They're showing the nostalgic documentary, When It Was A Game, and a voice in it says that baseball takes you not so much back in time as out of time. That's the problem with baseball and teleology: the outcome cannot explain the events leading up to that outcome, because baseball isn't timebound. It has no clock, thus it isn't subject to time's forces.

In a way, I was wrong two years ago when I tried to apply Aristotelian logic to a Bulls loss. There is really little cause-and-effect in baseball; it's a series of tiny events whose concatenation is actually non-narrative, disjointed and finally inscrutable. These things happened, but the order in which they happened does not explain the story. This was a close game until the ninth inning, and then it was a blowout. Chris Tillman was bad, then he was good, then he was gone. Rain. See immediately below.

The rain delay ends Chris Tillman's night prematurely after just 69 pitches. A good sign for the Bulls, who seem sure to break through against the Norfolk bullpen.

The rain also washes away the live organist who sometimes plays at the ballpark, and I could not be happier.

Top of the fifth inning: Reliever Lance Cormier has a 1-2-3 inning, albeit one whose last out is on a ringing liner to center field by Rhyne Hughes. This is the only 1-2-3 inning Bulls pitchers will record. Cormier pitches two innings, needing 41 pitches. He walks two and strikes out four. It's a little tiresome to watch, but it works.

Top of the third inning: Brian Baker, who has looked fine enough for two innings, starts the frame against No. 9 hitter Kyle Hudson. Hudson grounds out to second base. It's 3-0, Bulls: The game is all set up for the Bulls to win, with fairly well rested arms available out of the bullpen making it necessary for Baker to get through probably five or six innings and no more.

But now the Norfolk lineup turns over. Leadoff man Angle doubles on a ball down the left field line that I swear was foul. Brendan Harris doubles. 3-1. Baker walks Blake Davis. Then Jake Fox hits the longest homer I've seen at the DBAP this year, save perhaps Justin Ruggiano's blast to center field in April. Fox's homer hits the second balcony above Tobacco Road Cafe.

4-3, Tides. Then Josh Bell homers to right field. 5-3. Cormier gets up and starts throwing. Baker finishes the inning, doesn't return for the fourth. His performance in this game will be a distant memory by the time it ends, about 4 1/2 hours and a Gary Allenson solo-show after it starts. When the Official Scorer announces, around 8:45, that Tillman is the winner and Baker the loser, I think to myself, Oh yeah, Brian Baker pitched tonight.

Bottom of the first inning: Chris Tillman threw a no-hitter last year, a feat that continues to baffle me. His fastball is 88-89 miles per hour; he's a finesse pitcher, and finesse pitchers usually allow some hits. After Tillman walks Ray Olmedo with one out, Brandon Guyer singles to left. Dan Johnson taps out to the catcher, and that brings up Russ Canzler, who homers on the eighth pitch of the at-bat, a no-doubter over the Blue Monster but well under where Jake Fox's long-ball will go two innings later.

The problem was simple: Tillman kept throwing his 89-mph fastballs, pitch after pitch, and Canzler just kept fouling them off or taking them for balls until, finally, he got one he could drive—not a bad pitch, really, knee-high or even a tad below. But by then, Canzler had timed Tillman, and that made the location less relevant.

After the homer, the score is already 3-0, Durham—shades of another Tillman start at the DBAP, way back in April 2010, when he was tagged for four runs in the first inning and didn't return, losing to Jeremy Hellickson.

This time, though, after digging a multi-run, first-inning hole, Tillman bounced back, no-hitting the Bulls for the next four innings until his outing was abbreviated by the rain. He wound up getting a well-deserved win.

More on Tillman from the wonderfully blunt Allenson, who began our post-game interview with these belligerent words: "Do I gotta be a goofball for you guys to show up, or what?" (That caught me too flatfooted to say that A) I was off the night before, and B) the previous game had ended at 12:45 a.m. The reporters at the ballpark were just trying to get a couple of words from the home clubhouse so they could file something. But anyway...)

And then, anent Tillman's gopher ball:

You know what? He made a mistake with his pitch selection to Canzler. He got behind him, 2-0, and he got back in the count but he threw eight straight fastballs, and the eighth one was hit for a three-run homer. Other than that, he did a great job. He mixed his pitches very well. You can't stay with one pitch. Canzler's a good hitter. But regardless of who it is, you can't stay with one pitch. Sometimes you've got to get back in the count with a fastball, but other than that, sometimes you need to throw something else. Tip your hat to the guy for hitting a three-run homer.

I played with Dennis Eckersley as a starting pitcher, and he could give up a three-run homer and then pitch like a long reliever, not give up anything after that and give you a chance to come back. That's what happened.

[Tillman] needs better command. He was throwing 20 pitches an inning in the big leagues. What did he have? How many did he throw [tonight], Grif? ["Sixty-eight," Norfolk pitching coach Mike Griffin answers.] Sixty-eight in five innings, that's pretty good; that's, what, 13, 14 an inning. That's what he's got to get back to, is throwing three or four pitches over the plate for strikes when he needs to.

It pains me that I will have to miss the rest of the Norfolk series, because I won't get to interview Allenson again.

Right after the National Anthem: Ravenous after a five-mile run in the scorching, pitiless late-afternoon sun, I dig into a plate of Press Box food, and on poking at its contents discover that I am about to eat something I would not only not eat under any but the most pressing circumstances but which is, in intriguing addition, a dish I have never before encountered in my years on earth and at steam tables: a tater-tot casserole. I will write that again: a tater-tot casserole. After a few bites, it becomes apparent that this casserole contains not only tater tots, and lots of them, shiny with grease, but also something very like sweet pickle relish and two kinds of cheese. It's going to be a weird night, I think.

***

Let me give you some notes, in neither teleological nor any other order:

* Cory Wade, who has pitched pretty well for Durham this year—victimized, though, by a tendency to give up home runs—had a June 15 opt-out clause in his contract. Apparently he or his agent informed the Rays that he intended to invoke that clause; the Rays, who had Lance Cormier at the ready, went ahead and released Wade three days early.

Opt-outs aren't uncommon in Triple-A. Last season, Ryan Shealy had one (also June 15), and opted out for an opportunity with the Red Sox; Winston Abreu had one but didn't pull the trigger on his. Three more Bulls on the current squad, other than Wade, have opt-out clauses upcoming—I'm not at liberty to reveal who they are—so we'll have to wait and see how that goes from here.

Wade is likely to catch on quickly elsewhere. He may in fact already have a deal with another team.

* Brandon Gomes hasn't pitched since he was optioned from Tampa Bay—an undisclosed ouchie—but Charlie Montoyo said that he'll be available on Monday and should pitch.

* Russ Canzler has suddenly moved to the outfield after playing only the corner infield positions in 2010. That isn't as odd as it may seem: Canzler has played a fair amount of outfield in his career, about 60 games, so it isn't an alien position for him. He has been predominantly a first baseman, but not a good one—I almost laughed out loud when I read a blogger's report earlier this week that Canzler's infield play has been "fine." (I did laugh out loud when I heard Eduardo Perez say, on national TV, that Alex Cobb shouldn't throw his splitter so much because he throws a "mid-90s fastball." Has Perez ever seen Alex Cobb throw a pitch? Sometimes I think people say things out of a nearly maniacal hope that simply saying something, even if it is dead wrong, is better than saying nothing at all—as if life is simply an opportunity to fill space and attract notice via whatever substance happens to be handy. Alex Cobb's fastball tops out at 91 mph.)

Canzler has limited range and reflexes, and although he could potentially improve at first or third base, his power bat suits him for a corner outfield position. That's where Tampa Bay could really use the help next year, when it's probable that Johnny Damon, Sam Fuld, Justin Ruggiano and B. J. Upton will all have moved on to other teams. (Have you noticed that Ruggiano is doing great with the Rays since his callup? Just saying.)

Left field isn't as sensitive a position as first base, or third. If Canzler can handle it—"He made a couple of good plays out there in Lehigh Valley," Montoyo said, on Friday—he could earn himself a big-league job next season.

The move was Montoyo's idea, by the way, not the Rays' or Canzler's. Montoyo is not only thinking of Canzler's future but also, he said, that it's likely that Felipe Lopez, just designated for assignment (for the second time this season) when Elliot Johnson returned from the disabled list, will be back in Durham soon. Lopez will probably speak for third base rather often, meaning that Canzler will need to get at-bats from another position.

* Montoyo usually begins his post-game interview with an unsolicited, introductory thought or two about the game that has just concluded. But last night he said: "You ask." (Another instance of putting it backwards.) In other words, he was too frustrated, and too tired, to find anything constructive to say after a second straight glum loss to the league's worst team. The fatigue is plainly evident in his team, which has probably not recovered from its overnight bus ride following the trip to Lehigh Valley. The Bulls then played a rain-delayed game at home on Saturday night that didn't begin until 10:05 p.m. (the players were none too pleased that it wasn't postponed altogether) and ended around 1:00 a.m.; and then they were back at it at 5:05 p.m. on Sunday—first under crushing heat and humidity, then outlasting another energy-sapping rain delay. The Bulls have had nearly a quarter of their games this season delayed, postponed or canceled, a roundelay of rain-delays that has surely kept them out of rhythm. Still, Montoyo, while acknowledging the impediments of the weather and the long bus rides, wouldn't use them for excuses. "That's what minor-league baseball is all about," he said.

His frustration has to do with on-field shortcomings, not extracurricular issues, and really it's just one problem these days: starting pitching. Sunday's game must have felt, to Montoyo, quite similar to Saturday's, because the loss—despite Ekstrom's ninth-inning meltdown and the lineup's failure to score important late runs—was predominantly blamable on the starting pitcher in both games. Both Baker and, the previous night, Alexander Torres, put the Bulls in early holes from which they could never claw out.

"It's been hard the last couple weeks," Montoyo said. "You win with the starters, and we're not doing a good job starting the games. If the starter doesn't do the job, the mountain's too high to climb. It's tough to battle like that every night." I put in that two of his starters, Chris Bootcheck and Jay Buente, are career relievers, and Baker is basically a patch—a swingman pressed into duty as a starter two seasons in a row, with mixed results. It's not as if Montoyo is running true starters out there every night; he's playing with a deck that goes not much higher than jacks. Is that really feasible over the long haul?

"That's a question for somebody else," Montoyo said, flashing the gnomic grin he sometimes uses. The somebody else in question is the Rays' front office, which simply hasn't stocked the Durham rotation with the right arms this year. Alex Cobb, the only really reliable pitcher in the bunch, has already been called up to the major leagues; Torres, expected to do well, has been erratic; Edgar Gonzalez was evidently a bad seed and has been released; Dirk Hayhurst, basically a reliever himself like Bootcheck and Buente, has already spent ample time on the disabled list due to arm stress.

The Bulls are 33-30, hanging rather limply lately, and they wouldn't appear to have any expectation of improving too much unless the starting rotation either suddenly improves (Bootcheck and Hayhurst's recent work is cause for optimism) or gets reworked from above by the Tampa Bay brass (one member of which, Director of Minor League operations Mitch Lukevics, was at the DBAP last night). Otherwise, the 2011 team is likely to resemble the 2009 squad—if, that is, it gets lefty power-arm Matt Moore from Montgomery at some point in June or July, much as the 2009 team was the mid-season recipient of Jeremy Hellickson, who anchored the rotation down the stretch. But only time, or teleology, will well.

(The playwright in me, speaking of teleology and narratives that move backward, would be remiss if I didn't tell you not to miss Harold Pinter's great Betrayal, next time it comes to a stage near you. I hope someone will have the good sense to do it around here soon. Pinter won the Nobel Prize in 2005—he gave a memorably angry acceptance speech—and died in 2008, but to the best of my knowledge not a single one of his plays has been produced in the Triangle in years. Instead we get repeats of forgettable plays by lesser playwrights, and the usual low-rent Shakespeare. Surely the rights to at least some of Pinter's work is available.)

***

(Pause.)

***

Mr. Bootcheck—that's a Polish name, he told me last night (presumably it was once spelled "Bucek" or something)—starts for Durham tonight versus the Tides' Mitch Atkins, who has jumped two levels to Triple-A already this year, probably as a result of the many callups to Baltimore from the Norfolk staff. Bootcheck said that he's been feeling good lately, and the Bulls could really use a strong start from him. But all I can really guarantee is that there will be no tater-tot casserole. And I'm fairly confident that Gary Allenson will spend no time on the berm behind the center-field wall, looking for a baseball that isn't there.

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